Leave local decisions to local school boards

The following editorial was pubished in Saturday’s Island Packet of Hilton Head.

Local school districts are best equipped to determine what their students need and what their parents want.

But far too often, our state leaders unnecessarily meddle in local matters, creating statewide, one-size-fits-all laws that don’t serve all parts of the state well.

There’s one on the state books now that needs to go. Enacted a decade ago, the law decrees that no school district in the state can start classes before the third Monday of August. At issue back then, was so-called “calendar creep.” Many school districts, feeling the need to squeeze more school days in before standardized tests, were moving the date that school starts up.

And that had some chambers of commerce and business folks in tourism-reliant parts of the state in an uproar. It was shortening the summer season, they cried, and costing their local economies millions of tourism dollars.

So state lawmakers stepped in to save the day. Seemingly forgetting that each of these communities was represented by a publicly elected school board that was accountable to local voters, the legislature drew a line in the sand that had to be followed by every district from the top of the state in Greenville County down to the Atlantic Ocean in Beaufort County.

The law has become increasingly burdensome since its passage. Local school districts – in response to legislators’ urging – have sought more creative approaches to educating their students. Increasingly, schools require additional flexibility from rigid rules in order to best meet students’ needs.

That’s the case locally with the Beaufort County School District that, this fall, will offer school-choice programs in each of its schools. District leaders convincingly argue that they need the ability to set a school calendar that works best for local families.

In that vein, they have requested a waiver from the state Department of Education to start school one week earlier than the law allows on Aug. 10. But the state Board of Education has yet to issue a ruling. It is waiting on a legal opinion from state Attorney General Alan Wilson. Due to the delays, the local request has been set aside for the coming school year but will be sought again for the future.

We hope that the state board will soon grant the waiver and clear the way for our local district – and the other districts that will surely follow suit – to set their own calendars.

If we want our schools to get to the next level, we must give them the authority – and the flexibility – to do so.